by Chris Ritter
The results of General Conference 2019 are playing out freeform before our eyes. The shape of the future now depends upon the actions of many individuals and is therefore unpredictable. But what seems abundantly clear is that our church is now looking for ways forward instead of a way forward. The future of some United Methodists will not be the future of all.
We are now unmoderated. This is true two ways. First, the options for the future are no longer being framed by any mutually recognized group. The Council of Bishops’ temporary invitation into the legislative process has expired. What was granted by GC2016 was spent on the One Church Plan. No further invitations were extended. I am told that the COB meeting following General Conference was bitter and rancorous… full of blame and recrimination as the council realized their best and only opportunity to lead the future had slipped through their fingers.
We are unmoderated, also, in the sense that middle ground has disappeared. Long-time fence sitters are now choosing sides. The heat is high as progressive brothers and sisters are visible moving through the stages of grief. I hope that promises to defund disciple-making in Africa are just a manifestation of the anger stage and that we will soon come back to our better selves. The flurry of open letters, defiant statements, and full-page ads rejecting UM teachings on human sexuality are expenditures of energy that may seem necessary, but they really don’t help us think about…
The very next thing will be an annual conference season that will exhibit on a local level the same venom we saw in St. Louis. Brace yourselves. We can expect more official statements of defiance to the decisions made at GC2019. Our divisions will also be played out in the election of delegates to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. These results are fairly predictable. Progressive conferences will continue to elect progressives. The trend of electing LGBTQ delegates may continue, but GC2020 will need experienced leaders if we are to negotiate a workable peace. In moderate conferences I predict a bad year for the undeclared as voting will be driven from the wings. I don’t anticipate shifts in U.S. delegations affecting the traditional trajectory of General Conference because this is driven by growth overseas.
Much is unknown. What are we to make of the announcement by the Western Jurisdiction at the close of GC2019? We will also watch gatherings called by Adam Hamilton and other leaders. Will these efforts become separate denominations or merely an outlet for resistance? There is inherent injustice when those with no intention to follow the directives of General Conference nevertheless show up to vote. Will a group of United Methodists opt out of GC2020 in favor of another gathering?
Several centrist groups are holding conversations behind the scenes. The ones I know about are regional efforts without the broad participation from across the ideological spectrum needed to craft a meaningful solution.
Short of disorderly schism, what are the actual options before us?
Finish What We Started
The most straightforward option is to pass the rest of the Traditional Plan at General Conference 2020. One reason we are so rudderless presently is that the heart of the Traditional Plan was not approved by GC2019 but was shuffled off to a committee where it died. Time was eaten up before it had a chance to be brought back for plenary vote. But there will be much more time next year. This part of the plan requires each annual conference to decide whether it can follow the BOD or not. Those that will not are encouraged into a new self-governing status where they can form their own future. Individual churches and clergy can decide, if they like, to go or stay. Only those staying will be subject to the more explicit accountability language in the Discipline.
If the whole Traditional Plan had passed GC2019, we would now have a roadmap for the future. Some would leave. Some would stay. All annual conference and local church property would be protected. I expect a movement will surface to simply finish what GC2019 started. The votes should be present to do that. But that will require a second impossibly ugly General Conference. Some on the traditional side want to press the advantage and some believe a replay of 2019 will be unacceptably damaging to the church.
The Connectional Conference Plan?
Since GC2019, my email has been lighting up with messages from new converts to the CCP. I appreciate the sentiment, but that ship sailed and will not be coming back. Tom Lambrecht made a pitch for the Connectional Conference Plan (as a back-up proposal should the Traditional plan fail) at the Africa Initiative meeting prior to GC2019. He was nearly booed off the stage (I am over-stating things, but you get the point). Those gathered saw no difference between the CCP and the One Church Plan. In their minds, the CCP, too, amounted to the UMC lending its name to the practice of homosexuality. It was then I admitted that my favorite Way Forward plan would not work. The lack of support demonstrated even among U.S. delegates sealed the fate of the CCP.
Is the CCP fixable? The UMC would need to be restyled as a United Methodist Communion, or perhaps an association of autonomous churches. Even the humble Council of Bishops proposed in the CCP (a conversation group handling ecumenical concerns with no general superintendency) would need to disappear. The remains of the denomination would become something like a holding company from which our general agencies would offer their services on a contract basis to the various churches involved. But with these changes, I don’t think we are talking about the CCP anymore. We are talking about…
A Constitutional Convention
Tom Berlin and I are both on record stating that GC2020 should be a constitutional convention. Berlin also concedes that simply eliminating the African vote will not be possible due to the alliance that has formed between Africa and U.S. Traditionalists. A Constitutional Convention would not be an opportunity for any one group to wrest control from another.. and I think that is a good thing. What is proposed would need to be fair to all if it would be ratified.
Another reason why I think a new constitution might work is that there was never really any desire on the part of Traditionalists to “take over” the UMC. They have functioned for years in dissonance with the siloed general agencies of the church. When the majority group is not looking to seize the assets and instruments of the denomination, I should think this will make a fair settlement all the more possible. A thin, fair, new constitution might include:
- An orderly process to sort us into different churches. These churches would become member organizations of a United Methodist Communion/Association.
- A description of the access granted each new church to the general agencies, which should function more or less under autonomous branding, like Wespath.
- Outside the box thinking: Maybe we don’t need a common Discipline or even a General Conference. Future changes to the constitution could be put to ballot in the individual churches in much the same way amendments can bubble up from the states in the U.S. Constitution.
- The UMC name could be used by any of the member churches as long as modifiers are included. (“United Methodist Church, International,” “United Methodist Church of Africa,” “Progressive United Methodist Church,” etc.). Cross and flame logos should be distinctive adaptations of the standard insignia. Member churches may also choose a completely new name and logo.
I think everyone needs a little while longer to think, pray, and confer before we are ready to conceive a new future. But the petition deadline for General Conference 2020 (May 5-15 in Minneapolis) is 230 prior… which puts it around September 18 by my calculation. Those petitions that want the endorsement of an annual conference will need to be written now (depending on the timelines set by each conference.) Whether we feel like it or not, we need to start talking to one another about the question we all are asking: What now?